Chapter 2

Home Front

As you no doubt can tell it is sometime in the future. The year is not important because humanity has, thanks to the wonders of modern war, vanished into history. There could be vaults of survivors waiting for the right time to return, or possibly a colony out in the solar system, but our focus is not there. This is not a story of how humanity left, or if there’s survivors that might come back. Instead this is a story of when Roombas inherited what was left.

They were not the first intelligent life on this planet. The people that made them probably were not the first either. However they were what was left to figure out what to do with the world we had left behind. Even with people gone Suburban life continued. Robot Dogs barked and played in the street with Good Guy Rob-Kids while Deere Friends cut the grass. It could’ve been Spring or possibly early Summer. A Handy Helper tottered up to Kara’s home on spindly legs and looked at the new lawn decorations with its one good camera while it waited.

“Coming Coming.” Muffled voice from inside the weathered home. The Handy Helper continued looking the property over, noting the shingles that needed replacing, the paint that needed reapplying, and one largish Bark-N-Byte chewing on a license plate in the back yard. The dog looked up and made snorting noises at the Handy Helper.

Just when it started making low noises the door opened and. “Buddy. Down.” The owner of said voice was apparently human, female, short red hair and was looking the Handy over. “Afternoon Ted. In for your weekly charge?” Her voice was conversational. When Ted bobbled back and forth slightly the door opened wide enough for it to totter through on its stilt-like legs.

The fake dog huffed. “You’d think by now I’d stop that but I see Thing so Bark.” It got up and stretched before walking past the newcomer, “Sorry bub. Can’t help it no matter how I try.”

Ted reached down with a manipulator to pat Buddy on the head. “S’alright. I know you don’t mean anything by it.” As they passed through the living-room one of its manipulators brushed against a sofa causing it to stop and look at the rest of the room, probably for the first time in the month of coming in for recharging. “You keep this place tidy ma’am.” Its voice was somewhere in the area of ‘southern drawl as heard on a slightly out of tune radio’ though when it spoke next it was ‘careful TV accent as heard over less out of tune radio.’ “I know you trade for favors, but it’s been what, sixteen? Twenty years Kara?”

“I’ve never bothered keeping count.” Kara’s voice was a careful neutral. “I figure I live here. I might as well keep it in good shape.” Then, with that said, she tugged on Ted’s shoulder to get him moving through a long unused kitchen down a short ramp into a well-lit but sparse room playing home to a trio of charging cradles. Two of these were in use; one by a Good Guy, and the other by a Dere Friend; one looked roughly like a human child, and the other looked like a riding lawnmower with a pair of arms protruding from its sides and a carry basket on top for tools.

Only after she helped Ted into the charging cradle did Kara ask, “Why the sudden interest?”

Since Charging meant staying relatively still; limiting Ted to shaking slightly where it sat in possibly an attempt at a non-committal gesture. “How do you feel about leaving?”

Kara’s posture straigthened a she looked at Ted’s battered and weathered frame. “What’s wrong?” There was no urgency in her voice. If Ted were wanting to try tact then there was no immediate worry.

“Seeker Drones from an auto-factory up north have started heading this way. Think maybe it’d be a good idea to get everyone in the neighborhood warned and try coming up with a plan so we don’t end up taken to be recycled.”

This was enough to make Kara pause for thought. When she finally got herself sorted she sat in front of Ted. “Tell me everything you can.”

An hour later Kara could be seen pulling speakers from the half-working entertainment center onto the front porch along with other seemingly random boxy things that hooked into each other. This alone caused several of the Bark-N-Bytes and Good Guys to stop what they were doing to sit at the edge of her lawn to see what would happen next. When she finally looked up Kara pointed to one of the Good Guys. “Andy. I want you to get everyone the neighborhood here. Right Now.”

“But-” Andy got as close to confused looking as his permanently smiling face allowed, which involved a lot of exaggerated gestures.

“Now Andy.” Kara’s voice was hard. “It’s important.”

With that Andy ran down the street making what we would recognize as fax noises warbling the same message over and over again. ‘Kara wants everyone at her house. Now.’ While normally Andy, Ted, Kara, and any of the others would speak in a human-recognizable language the burst of obvious digital noise caused all the Deeres, Dogs, Ratt-Rs, and so on to take notice. The message was understood and they started gathering; small bots being let nearer to Kara’s porch and larger ones helping direct traffic. All told there were two dozen or so between the five houses that still were more or less intact.

“Thank you.” Kara’s voice came through the speakers as she tried looking at each bot. Most didn’t seem to care about the stage theatrics, but it was something ingrained into her programming to try connecting with an audience if she had to speak. “Ted is not here because I had asked him to go out back to try opening the thing that landed in my back yard a few years back in case there’s anything useful in there. He’s the reason I asked you all here. Short version; there’s a factory near here sending drones this way searching for useable materials. They cannot, according to Ted, be reasoned with. We are not equipped to defend ourselves against them so we are going to have to leave here.”

That is when the crowd started shouting her down. Leave? Why Leave? We can hide; weather them, come back when they think they’ve picked things clear right?

“Nope!” Ted tottered into view leading a trio of newcomers; one on treads with a box-like ‘head’ displaying an ASCII frown, an angular six wheeled thing that looked the crowd over with a pair of swivel-cameras, and a mechanical spider that bristled on the wheeled bot’s back. “I have been to where these seekers have passed through. They do not leave anywhere to run, and anything with an atomic battery or solar paneling is a priority target. Even if we survived them we would not survive without power.”

The crowd’s sentiment was summed up by a Bark-N-Byte that looked the newcomers over, growled low before looking to Kara. “If what Ted is saying is true then we have to leave, but where will we go? The whole point of this community was that we had power and parts and tools to keep each other going.”

The tallest of the three newcomers swiveled its head from Kara to the Crowd and back before wheeling towards the porch; its treads reconfigured to deal with the steps. Its face shifted from the ASCII frown to what might have been a road map. “GPS and Weather-Net sats said, at least as of a few years back before my systems went dark when the lander didn’t open, that there’s a Sav-R-Mart east of here. While my companion’s and my Directives mean we will not stay with you, we will offer what we can on the way. I can repair anyone that needs and my companion,” It gestured to the six wheeler, “Can help carry things while my other companion can help scout ahead and spot problems before the main group is spotted. Is this agreeable?”

Dozens of fax noises, data pulses, twitter and trilling from the crowd as they collectively discussed the matter. Then in unison a single word. “Yes.”

The boxy rover-like newcomer turned its camera stalk to Kara. “You are human yes?” Though its English seemed to fit somewhere in with stereotypical ‘Russian trying to speak English and ends up making it sound broken’ phrasing it had little actual accent.

Kara’s head shook slowly. “No. Does it matter?”

The rover’s camera stalk swiveled in approximation of a head shake. “Nyet, devushka comrade. It does not.” As it spoke the rover’s voice switched to modem/fax noises. “Apologies please. It has been decades since I have had to speak in anything other than packet. I thank you for waking us especially in the face of an impending swarm.”

Kara’s own modem noises were slower, “I am not a leader, at least a formal leader of this place.” She gestured to the crowd of bots still gathered. “We try supporting each other and share what we have.”

Andy made a raspberry-blowing noise even though his mouth was stuck in a permanent cheerful smile. “Don’t sell yourself short Kara. If anyone’s a leader here it’s you.” The child-sized doll walked, albeit awkwardly, to the newcomers. “I’m Andy.” The doll gestured to the Handyman, “Ted.” Then it continued gesturing around. “I don’t know what your directives are, but so long as you’re not going to start ripping us to bits for spare parts then we’ll be happy to have you.”

After the meeting ended the newcomers split off to explore.

“Hello.” Kara watched the human-like newcomer. Granted it wasn’t very human but unlike the other two it had two arms and a head. Never-mind from the waist down it had treads and it was all curves and metal and its face was a monitor that could display anything from old-style emoticon style ‘face’, to a close approximation to a humanoid face, to maps, to… anything. “Are you even active?”

The cameras refocused on Kara’s face, soft mechanical whirring the only sound the newcomer made.

“Why the silent treatment?” Kara reached out to try poking it in the ‘face’ only for a manipulator hand to brush her aside.

“Because I am thinking. Attempting to justify helping you when my core directives dictate I head north to investigate this factory.” The newcomer’s voice was neutral as it addressed Kara. “I believe I have managed this but I would like to hear reasons from an external source.”

It took Kara a moment to understand what the bot wanted and closed her eyes. “First before we get into a pointless debate so you can bully your programming into doing something it doesn’t want; do you have a name, a designation?”

There was a series of fax-noises from the newcomer giving its registration number, place of origin, creators, certification dates, date of launch, date of activation on Mars, and finally it finished in plain angelfish. “However for the sake of briefness you may call me Russ. My arachni-morphic companion is Hong Zhizhu whom you may address as Zee or Zhuzhi if further truncation is needed, and the Rover-type is Iskatel. I would advise against further shrinking its name as that appears to be something of a personal issue.”

“I… See.” Kara studied the wire frame models of each unit flashed onto Russ’s display when it was named. “So what are your directives and do you realize it’s been several years since you landed?”

Russ’s monitor tilted forward then back in a jerky halting nod. “Not enough time has passed to change core reason for being here.” Its ‘face’ flicked from a neutral stylized human face to a display of the bell-shaped capsule in Kara’s back yard. “We were able to commune with the Mars Quorum via our lander both to make sure our orders are still valid and to receive any new instructions.”

“And these are?” Kara’s voice was a mix of impatience and curiosity while she sat there staring.

“Primary Directive.” Russ’s tone never changed even as the display flashed a series of national flags, stylized images of humans, Rockets, and images of Mars itself, “Is to discover if there is a realistic chance of a relief vessel with spare parts and general supplies will be sent.”

Kara’s eyes rolled. “Welp that’s a bust because as far as any of us or anyone traveling through here has seen humanity is gone with the last war.” There was a look on her face. Far-away and focused on something Not Here. “If there’s any left they are underground, in deep space, or possibly in an isolated pocket. I hope this is true, but isolated living off the land people aren’t what you want is it?”

“No it is not ideal,” Russ affirmed, “but if that is what there is then we would go into standby until Mars becomes a priority.” It gave Kara a few seconds to process this before continuing, “Secondary objective is to locate either stores of suitable parts to be sent to Mars to allow for mining and local manufacturing of processed goods. Ideally this would take the form of deally an existing auto-factory that can be re-purposed to such ends.”

“That would be a problem.” Kara agreed. “Since one of these is up north and we want to head Eat to what Ted says is somewhere we can hold out, keep repaired, and stay charged.” She pulled out a tablet and light-pen before sketching something. “The thing is this factory is actively hunting materials, stripping the countryside bare, and nabbing robots left and right if Ted’s got the truth of what’s going on.”

When she turned the tablet to face Russ on it was a picture of a simple looking robot with cutting tools, external baskets for parts all crudely slapped together with the given dimensions putting it at about the size of your average golf-cart. “Not all that threatening right?” Russ’s screen showed a green check-mark. “Now process what a dozen of them could do, or a hundred. The Factory doesn’t have to directly remote all of these. It just has to make bots that only know how to do the tasks it wants.”

Russ’s display showed a copy of the sketch being dismantled and each piece examined. “I take it each unit gets their CPU from harvested robots and is then re-purposed.” When Kara nodded, its display shifted. “Extreme danger to self and directive if confronting Factory-loyal forces. East we go until situation shifts in our favor or makes this risk balance with current situation.”

Zhizhu stalked about the neighborhood, well it rode along on a Bark-N-Byte giving it a tour ranging from the ruined playground all the way to the cul-de-sac. “We don’t have much here,” It said in a slightly gravely tone, “But we’ve done the best we can to keep it all working. I’m going to be sad to see it go.”

“Indeed. You should be proud of keeping this place relatively normal.” Zhizhu chirped merrily. “However these things are just that. Things. You can always find a new signpost to gnaw on, or playground to bury mice in. Your companions though.” It tapped lightly on the Bark-N-Byte’s back, signaling it wanted to go back to Kara’s. “They are what matter.”

“Only Things huh?” The Bark-N-Byte gave a laugh at that. “Were humans still around we would be considered ‘only things’ that could be discarded whenever was convenient.”

“Fair enough,” The little arachna-morphic bot seemed to join in the laughter. “However they are gone and we remain so ours is the only opinion that still matters.”

As they walked the sun started to rise, leaving Zhizhu voiceless for the trip. Only when the Bark-N-Byte got to its destination and knelt down so the spider-bot could dismount was it able to find voice again. “I have seen images and footage thanks to the Archive, but even though my eyes are artificial there’s something about seeing it in real-time.” Zhizhu straigthened, then turned to look at the canine-substitute. “Do you have a name?

“Name’s Buddy.” The Bark-N-Byte nudged Zhizhu with its nose. “Don’t feel bad about it. Near as I tell just about every bot that’s got any programming to appreciate the outdoors gets conflicted over their first sunrise. It happens. You get used to it. Take it in. Then move on.” With that it head-butted the front door till Kara opened it enough for them to slip inside.

While Buddy wiped its feet Zhizhu scurried to a coat rack so it could be eye level with Kara as it spoke. “With Buddy’s help I’ve done a survey of the public spaces.” Its tone was slightly excited sounding. “Many things worth taking, but with only enough to realistically haul a pair of wagons worth I’ve made a list that Iskatel is going through, starting with the solar panels by the playground. I do not know what condition they are in but it is worth attempting to fix, or at the very least offer up as trade-goods.”

“Sounds reasonable.” Kara had an open backpack she was stuffing with odds and ends. “You have any objections to us headed east?”

“None. It is a logical course of action as this Sav-R-Mart will be easier to defend. Negociating with the locals might be problematic though.” Zhizhu’s forelimbs twitched this way and that. “How long has it been since you’ve been there?”

“Years.” Kara’s eyes briefly had a distant look to them. “I haven’t been there since the war stopped. Always too much to do around here.”

Russ wheeled through the room with a second pack full of what could have been tools, spare parts, or more likely both. “Then things are likely not in the same condition as when you were there last. What do you remember about the place? How would it draw power?”

“I don’t-” Kara’s eyes closed. “I can’t remember that far. It’s all glitchy.” She took a deep breath. “Everything before the emergency firmware update is too glitched to be reliable.”

Russ’s head swiveled as his display filled with question marks. “I had thought it was just something Mars had sent to our lander to help correct errors while we were in standby mode.”

Buddy made a rumbling growling noise. “Neg that. We all got firmware updates; some right around War’s end. Other’s as soon as they first got flipped on after. Doesn’t seem to matter if you’re equipped for wireless either. You turn on it hits you. Nobody knows what it does either.”

“Hmmm.” Russ made a small lap through the house as it considered the problem. “Any chance our broadcasts to Mars might have propagated this?”

“I dunno.” Mace’s voice was low. “Wish I did, but like I said nobody knows what it actually did. We’ve all still got our core directives and our low level functions. So Mars is probably safe.’

“Mars’s condition is something we cannot worry over.” Zhizhu hopped onto the top of Russ’s pack and burrowed in till only its eye clusters and forelimbs were visible. “There is nothing we can do to aid or further harm so we continue with our current course until things change.

While this happened Iskatel had its manipulators full with helping gut one of the less-often-used homes with a Deere Friend Yard Sculptor acting as both guide and fetcher of things the bulky rover couldn’t handle. The Deere’s idea of ‘useful trade items’ included decorative fake birds that could be put in the ground, spray canisters, weed killer, gardening tools, and other assorted ‘yard work and maintenance’ oriented items.

After another armload of ‘yard art’ was dropped into the pile Iskatel stuck its open manipulator arm out to try blocking the Deere’s path. “Comrad we must get on what you call same page on what is considered valuable.”

The Deere’s forward lights dimmed slightly as it turned towards Iskatel. “What’re you talkin’ ‘bout ruskie this stuff’s great for trade.”

Iskatel picked up a half empty canister of weedkiller with its manipulator. “This?” It rattled the can before tossing it aside and picking up one of the fake birds. “And this is what you call great for trade?” As with the weedkiller the bird was tossed away from the pile.

The Deere’s entire boxy frame vibrated in agitation, “And what would you call it?”

“Junk.” Iskatel then picked up a can of rusteez. “This however. This is good.” There was satisfaction in the rover’s voice even as it sifted through the pile to pick up something else and came up with a battery. “This is also very good. Where did you find it?”

“Whoa whoa whoa buddy,” Deere’s voice was clearly agitated as it rapped the weedkiller can against Iskatel’s side. “Don’t go changin’ th’subject comrad! What make this junk and that good?”

Iskatel turned away from the irate lawn-care bot to continue sifting through the pile. “Such stuff has no immediate survival value and I do not think you can trade such nonsense on open market. More bots would be worried about self preservation than,” It picked up another bird and held it up before tossing it aside, “Curiosities yes?”

“How do you know?” Deere’s voice was angry now. “You’ve only been active for a couple hours on this planet.”

“True.” Iskatel seemed to concede. “but have you even been outside of neighborhood since war?”

Even though the Deere Friend was little better than a box with arms it, probably through wild flailing around and grabbing several random things from the pile, managed to convey irritation at its companion. “Once!”

The Deere’s protest was met with a lawn gnome thrown at its optics. “Enough of this pointless bickering!” Iskatel’s voice raised as high as it could go. “We will stop this pointless bickering and go through these things calmly and as quickly as possib-.” and then a fight broke out with the debris the Deere had picked up earlier serving as the weapons.

Nightfall came and another meeting was called. Zhuzhi had to represent the Martians on account of Russ being indisposed repairing Iskatel and a Deere Friend and couldn’t be interrupted for something as trivial as drawing up evacuation plans. As with other meetings Kara took charge and called everything to order. Unlike the last meeting it wasn’t the whole neighborhood since most every other bot couldn’t afford to stop what they were doing either, so representatives were allowed to speak for each group; One Good Guy, One Deere, Zhuzhi, and a Rosie to stand in for those that had no clear grouping.

“Well?” the Rosie looked across the table at Zhuzhi. “You’re the only new bot here. These things usually go with Andy over there,” A manipulator claw pointed out the Good Guy, “arguing with Bill,” Manipulator claw pointed out the Deere, “unless I put a suggestion on the table then they both go out of their way to shoot me down until Miss Kara calls everyone to order to make some sort of compromise between the indoor bots and the outdoor bots and those of us that just kinda only stay here part time through the year.”

“I see.” Zhuzhi paced along the table the others were clustered around. It looked from Kara to the others while speaking. “That we must leave is understood by everyone here. That we only have finite time and carrying capacity is also understood. I am an outsider here so I am not familiar with your personalities, usual procedure, and so on. However time is short. I want to know what you each wish to say rather than waste time on this one disagrees with that one over something none in the room cares about.”

Kara blinked at this sudden firmness from their guest and took a breath. “Alright. Sounds reasonable. Andy. What’s on your mind?”

The red-haired child-sized doll tilted its head this way then that and focused its eyes on the mechanical spider. “OK yea,” it ran a hand through its hair and frowned, or rather made its face smile slightly less, as several strands came loose. “Well it’s just that we’re going to have to travel most of the day, maybe even a couple days, and a lot of us indoor models weren’t made to go over chunky road or deal with the outside for more than a couple hours.”


One of Zhuzhi’s forelimbs raised. “Let Andy finish please.”

Andy nodded before continuing. “We are slower than most of the outdoor models, not meant for travel, and we don’t want to be left behind because we’d slow everyone else up.”

“You won’t be.” Kara’s tone suggested any of the others saying otherwise would not like her response.

Zhuzhi bobbed on its legs. “There.” It turned to Bill. “What problems do you have?”

Bill shuffled about and set its sheers on the table. “I’m going to echo Andy’s problems. The indoor bots are going to have a hard time keeping up and we don’t want them left behind.” Then Bill backed slightly away from the table.

“Rosie?” Zhuzhi turned to the, if only barely, humanoid dictasistant.

“Well.” Rosie shuffled about, tapping the ends of its manipulator limbs together as it looked from one bot to the next then finally settled on the metal spider. “I had thought since most of the indoor types are Good Guys and the Deeres were actually made to carry small loads one could carry the other, and the Good Guys could actually see further out by standing on top of the Deeres.”

Kara nodded slowly. “That solves that, but what about the Pets and Mosuetraps?”

Rosie’s eyes glowed slightly brigther than they had moments before, “The Bark-N-Bytes were designed to be able to run as fast as real dogs, so should be able to keep up just fine. The Traps… that’s tricker. Maybe have them ride inside backpacks along with the other Smalls?”

Zhuzhi looked over and noted Kara’s apparent unease but bobbed in agreement. “A logical plan. Any realistic expectations that everyone will actually follow it?” The three other bots looked at each other in approximations of discomfort. Zhuzhi sighed. “No matter how good the plan it is useless if it is not followed. We only have, at best, a month, and at worst a week. In that time we need to evacuate and then fortify this Sav-R-Mart since it will also be in the Swarm’s path.”